March Madness 2019: Each title contender’s biggest flaw that could prevent them from winning NCAA Tournament

Every team in basketball has a flaw. Duke struggles to make shots consistently from behind the 3-point line. Michigan State couldn’t keep a salad healthy at its current attrition rate. Golden State doesn’t have enou–

You know what, maybe some teams are flawless, actually.

OK, an addendum: Every team in college basketball has a flaw. Most have a plethora of them. Some have clunky big men who get lost like Waldo in pick-and-rolls, others have undersized guards who get tossed around like rag dolls in the paint. Even near-perfect teams have imperfect pieces. That’s why the national title race in college basketball is particularly interesting, this year and every year. No team is without its warts, some more icky than others. And the teams with the most icky, of course, will be subjected to watching those with the less icky from the couch this time next month.

How coaches resolve said blemishes makes for the most entertaining section of the sports season we refer to as March Madness.

I’ve already given away too much about two contenders’ biggest weaknesses in the teaser, so before I blab on further, here are the other imperfections for every top-10 team in America as we quickly approach tourney time. 

Teams are ranked in order of the latest AP Top 25.

1. Gonzaga

Shortcoming: Depth

Gonzaga,  unquestionably, has the two very best players on the west coast in Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke, and the duo of Zach Norvell Jr. and Josh Perkins is among the most productive backcourts in the sport. But the ‘Zags are uncharacteristically thin beyond their starting five. Corey Kispert’s had a solid season, Filip Petrusev is an underrated freshman and Geno Crandall’s experience is invaluable — all solid bench players. But they still might be one piece away from being a real threat to win it all. It’s not all doom and gloom, though; junior big man Killian Tillie could be that missing piece. But Tillie, the 6-foot-10 floor-spacer with NBA upside, has played in only nine games all season as he’s battled injuries off and on. His return to the court for the postseason is still up in the air.

2. Virginia

Shortcoming: Style of play

Virginia was the very best team in all of college basketball last season, and it’s looking like the Cavaliers could easily stake claim to that same distinction again in 2018-19. In the vaunted ACC, they are 14-2 and well on their way to winning at least a share of the regular season title. The only team good enough to beat them has been Duke — twice. But as good as they were last year (and are this year), their style of play is still a concern when you’re spinning things forward to the postseason. Virginia’s pack-line defense is the second-most efficient in college basketball, and its offense is fourth in efficiency, according to KenPom. But the Cavaliers also boast the slowest adjusted tempo in the entire sport: 353 out of 353. That style makes them susceptible to losing on any given night, despite their undeniable success winning games at the highest level in the regular season. Just ask UMBC, which became the first 16 seed in NCAA Tournament history to take out a 1, ousting Virginia in stunning fashion last season. Until Virginia makes a run to the Final Four playing the style it plays under Tony Bennett, its methods — fair or not — will always be a point of contention.

3. North Carolina

Shortcoming: Lack of frontcourt size

North Carolina under Roy Williams has always been successful when deploying two-big lineups and bullying on other teams in the low post. When the Tar Heels won it all in 2017, they had Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks inflicting pain on everyone. But this UNC team is decidedly thin in the frontcourt, both literally and figuratively, which in essence is leaving Williams to deploy Luke Maye, who played primarily as a stretch-four on the 2017 title team. Maye is 6-foot-8. Garrison Brooks, who plays primarily at the power forward position, is 6-foot-9. Where UNC struggles — defending the rim and altering shots in and around the post — could ultimately lead to its demise. It ranks just 145th nationally in blocked shots per game, 139th (out of 353) in block percentage and 297 (out of 353) in percentage of shots blocked on offense. For a team that has counted size as a strength more often than not under Williams, it is unquestionably its biggest — and maybe only — major concern.

4. Duke

Shortcoming: 3-point shooting

Duke has three projected top-five picks in Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cameron Reddish, and another potential first-rounder in point guard Tre Jones. It has talent. Gobs of it. But with as much talent as the Blue Devils have, they don’t have anyone that’s been able to consistently maintain a spot in the rotation who can raise their abysmal 3-point shooting numbers. Their 30.7 percent accuracy from distance ranks 328 (out of 351) in college hoops this season, the second worst in the ACC. No team that’s shot below 31 percent from 3 in the regular season has won the NCAA championship since at least 2000, the lowest in that span coming in 2011 when UConn won after shooting 32.9 percent on the season. Sure, Duke is uniquely equipped with the highest grade of NBA talent, which is why, if Williamson is healthy, I’m likely picking the Blue Devils to win it all. But their shortcomings shooting from distance suggest I may be getting out over my skis. Since 2000, 16 of the 19 national champions have shot greater than 35 percent from 3.

5. Tennessee

Shortcoming: Old-school offense

3-point shooting is sweeping the NBA and the NCAA, with teams jacking up deep shots at a clip we’ve never before seen. Not stubborn, old-fashioned Tennessee, though. The Vols are about as old school as a top team can be, taking only 19 3s per game (which ranks 302 out of 353 nationally in volume). In the SEC, only Kentucky takes fewer shots from deep this season. For context: Villanova, which won the title last season with a steady diet of 3s, took 28.9 per game last year. UT shoots a respectable 35.7 percent from deep, and its star, Grant Williams, hits more than 35 percent of his attempts. But neither UT nor Williams shoot the 3 with as much volume as most modernized offenses boast. If the Vols get into a matchup with a streaky 3-point shooting team in the NCAA Tournament, they could be in trouble, no matter how well they’re shooting their elbow jumpers and layups.

6. Kentucky

Shortcoming: Experience

Five of Kentucky’s top eight scorers on the season are true freshmen. Even by Kentucky standards, it’d be quite an accomplishment for it to win the national title given its youth. It’s true that when the ‘Cats won it all in 2012, they were led by a freshman most people might know, who goes by the name Anthony Davis; it’s also true that there is decidedly no player in the same game-changing atmosphere of Davis on this roster. And people forget that on that title team, Doron Lamb, Terrence Jones and Darius Miller — the third, fourth and sixth leading scorers — were, in order, a sophomore, a sophomore and a senior. Kentucky has sophomore PJ Washington and grad transfer senior Reid Travis holding down the age fort, but remains over-reliant on young guns Keldon Johnson, Tyler Herro and Ashton Hagans to produce.

7. Michigan

Shortcoming: Bench production

Only two teams in all of college basketball get less production from their bench than Michigan: South Dakota State and Hartford. Maybe it doesn’t and shouldn’t matter, considering the Wolverines’ starting five of Zavier Simpson, Jordan Poole, Charles Matthews, Ignas Brazdeikis and Jon Teske have been nails all season. But truth be told, lack of punch off the bench does and should matter. According to KenPom, Michigan ranks 351th in bench minutes — the computed minutes of remaining players who are not starters who play in games. That leaves Michigan unusually susceptible. Should a player go down, Michigan might be one ankle turn away from being a non-factor in March.

8. Texas Tech

Shortcoming: Fouling

Texas Tech has one of the best overall defensive units in the country. In fact, its defense rates No. 1 in adjusted efficiency at KenPom, and third in points per game allowed. Those numbers come at a price, though — the Red Raiders foul frequently. Their average of 18 hacks per game ranks among the most foul in the sport (201 out of 353). As a result, teams get to the line often on Texas Tech and, most notably, its fouling players are susceptible to fouling out, or at the very least getting into foul trouble. Twenty-two times this season a starter on Texas Tech has either fouled out of a game or earned four fouls. Virginia, the No. 2 defense in adjusted efficiency, has nearly half that amount.

9. Michigan State

Shortcoming: Injury-prone

As I mentioned at the top, Sparty’s fortunes with health this season have been unbelievably bad. First it was Joshua Langford, then it was Nick Ward. Now, most recently, it’s Kyle Ahrens who is dealing with a ding. Langford isn’t expected back, and Ward and Ahren’s timetables are both murky. At this point, Michigan State’s depth is proving to be a real concern, and it might be showing as we saw this weekend when it lost to Indiana.

10. LSU

Shortcoming: Rebounding

LSU has a mean frontcourt in Naz Reid and Kavell Bigby-Williams, who both can score it in a number of efficient ways. But the duo this season has not rebounded well, specifically on the defensive glass. LSU allows teams to grab offensive rebounds at a staggering 30.8 percent rate, according to KenPom, which ranks 281 out of 353 in Division I. Considering LSU ranks in the top 10 in offensive rebound percentage, the number is borderline inexplicable. But second-chance points could be a killer for the Tigers in the tourney if they don’t lock things up on the defensive boards.

Categories: National Sports

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